Paralyzed man walks again thanks to implants connecting brain to spinal cord
A 40-year-old man whose legs were paralyzed in a bicycle accident 12 years ago is walking again thanks to brain and spinal cord implants.
The brain-spinal interface (BSI) has remained stable for a year, allowing Gert-Jan Oskam to stand, walk, climb stairs and traverse complex terrain, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Oskam even regains some control of his legs when the BSI is turned off.
“My wish was to be able to walk again and I believed it was possible,” Oskam said during a press conference.
Oskam was involved in the accident in China and thought he would get the help he needed when he returned to the Netherlands, but the technology wasn’t advanced enough at the time, Oskam said.
According to the study authors, Oskam previously took part in a study by Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who also worked on the new research. In 2018, Courtine’s team found that technology can stimulate the lower spine and help people with spinal cord injuries walk again. After three years, Oskam’s progress reached a plateau.
For the latest study, the research team used a digital bridge to restore communication between Oskam’s brain and spinal cord. Oskam attended 40 neurorehabilitation sessions throughout the study. He said he is now able to run at least 100 meters (328 feet) or more at a time, depending on the day.
“We captured Gert-Jan’s thoughts and translated those thoughts into spinal cord stimulation to restore voluntary movement,” Courtine said.
Researchers said the next advance will be to miniaturize the hardware needed to operate the interface. Oskam currently carries it in a backpack. Researchers are also working to determine if similar devices can restore arm movement.
There have been numerous advances in the treatment of spinal cord injuries over the past several decades. A study published in Nature in February found that targeted electrical impulses delivered to the spinal cord can be helpful.
The researchers who helped Oskam believe that in the future, the technology they are using can also restore movement in the arms and hands. They also believe that with time and resources, they can use progress to help stroke patients.